September 11, 2018 at 8:51 p.m.

Siena exhibits handwritten Bible

Siena exhibits handwritten Bible
Siena exhibits handwritten Bible

By EMILY BENSON- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

On Catechetical Sunday, Catholics are called to reflect on how they hand on the faith to others and bear witness to the Gospel. Siena College in Loudonville is working to ignite the faith of students, faculty and others in the Albany Diocese with an exhibit of the St. John’s Bible.

The “SJB” is the first handwritten and illustrated Bible of its scale created since the invention of the printing press in the 15th century.

A few months ago, Siena became one of the proud owners of a full-color reproduction of the SJB. The Bible is on display in Siena’s library in an exhibit titled, “Illuminating the Imagination: Art and Word at Siena College.”

“The sacred word nurtures and feeds our faith as Catholics,” said Siena’s mission director, Rev. Mark Reamer, OFM, who helped facilitate bringing the SJB to the college. Reading the St. John’s Bible, he said, is “another way to enhance and nurture one’s faith.”

On Sept. 25, 7 p.m., Tim Ternes, the director of the SJB project, will give a presentation at Siena for the community about the Bible’s history and creation. Siena students can attend a separate talk the next evening. On Sept. 27, there will be a 1:30 p.m. presentation for faith formation leaders and, at 5:30 p.m., Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger will bless the SJB, with a reception following.

College’s Catholic ID

In 2015, Father Reamer was attending an annual meeting of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities when he got the idea to bring the SJB to Siena.

“There’s something simply beautiful about it,” he said of the unique Bible.

Father Reamer believed that being able to offer students and faculty the opportunity to read from the handwritten work would “enhance the Catholic identity of Siena.”

Over the next almost four years, Siena worked to organize a payment plan that would make obtaining the Bible feasible. Siena was able to finalize payment this year, thanks to numerous donors and a grant from The John, Marie and Joseph Whalen Foundation. The total cost for the SJB was around $250,000.

“I’m very excited, and encouraged by the response on-campus and off-campus,” Father Reamer told The Evangelist.

Story of Bible

The SJB organizes the Bible’s 73 books into seven volumes: the Pentateuch, historical books, psalms, wisdom books, prophets, Gospels and Acts, and letters and Revelation.

Each volume contains colorful, intricate illustrations that correspond with the surrounding text. Some illustrations take up entire pages, while other pages include brightly-colored calligraphy to emphasize certain quotes.

A number of the images incorporate modern elements: One page shows strands of DNA and viruses; on another, New York City’s Twin Towers as they stood before 9/11 can be seen in the background.

The SJB is “like a time machine,” said Peter Zaas, a professor of religious studies at Siena. “It connects modern and medieval in an interesting way.”

Dr. Zaas is using the opportunity of the SJB’s presence to have students study it this year. His students will examine the different artists’ interpretations of the text and dissect various biblical texts.

Scott Foster, chair of Siena’s creative arts department, has used the SJB Bible in previous classes. He plans to continue projects on it this semester, noting: “Words and images work together in a way that nothing else would.”

Colorful history

The artistic director and inspiration behind the SJB is Donald Jackson, a British calligrapher and senior scribe to the Queen of England. In 1995, Mr. Jackson approached Rev. Eric Hollas, a Benedictine monk who serves as deputy to the president for advancement at St. John’s University in Minnesota, about his dream of hand-writing a Bible.

Two years later, the university and the Benedictine monastery of St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota jointly commissioned the project.

Mr. Jackson was joined by six calligraphers and six artists. Together, the group hand wrote all 1,150 pages, and created more than 160 major illustrations. Mr. Jackson drew the first words — “In the beginning” — on Ash Wednesday in 2000; a Jewish scribe drew the Hebrew script.

The project was completed in 2011, with only 299 versions of the SJB created. No two are identical, since many illustrations were hand-treated. Some of the other owners of a St. John’s Bible include the Vatican, Yale University and the Mayo Clinic.

Each of the seven volumes is kept locked in a glass case in Siena’s library but, with permission, students are encouraged to touch and read the volumes of the SJB.

Patrick Moran, a senior at Siena, said he was able to look through a couple of pages already, but he hopes to come back and read through the SJB more thoroughly.

A tour guide at Siena for prospective students, Mr. Moran plans to incorporate the SJB exhibit in his tours so that students and parents can see it. He also wants to publicize the exhibit on his class’ social media pages.

In viewing the SJB, students “will see a certain side of Catholic, Christian and Franciscan tradition that they haven’t seen,” said Mr. Moran. “This is another area that will enhance people’s faith if they let it.”

(Learn more at


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